Free to Teach: What America’s Teachers Say about Teaching in Public and Private Schools

Free to Teach cover

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today the Friedman Foundation releases Free to Teach: What America’s Teachers Say about Teaching in Public and Private Schools, a study I co-authored with my Friedman colleague Christian D’Andrea.

It’s a simple study with a powerful finding. We used the teacher data from the Schools and Staffing Survey, a very large, nationally representative, confidential survey of school employees conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. We just separated public school teachers from private school teachers and compared their answers on questions covering their working conditions.

We found that the government school system is not providing the best environment for teaching. Public school teachers fare worse than private school teachers on virtually every measurement – sometimes by large margins. They have less autonomy in the classroom, less influence over school policy, less ability to keep order, less support from administrators and peers, and less safety. So it’s not surprising that they also have less job satisfaction on a variety of measures. About the only thing they have more of is burnout. (The measures of teacher burnout were some of the more eye-popping numbers we found in the federal data set.)

Free to Teach box scores

The Schools and Staffing Survey is observational, so we can’t run causal statistical analyses. But it’s really not hard to figure out why private schools provide a better teaching environment. The government school system responds mainly to political imperatives, because anything owned and run by government is inherently political and always will be. Meanwhile, the biggest pressure on private schools is from parents, because if the schools don’t please the parents, the parents can take their children elsewhere.

Which of the two sources of influence – politics or parents – do you think is more focused on demanding that schools provide better teaching?

That’s why private schools deliver a better education even when they serve the same students and families as public schools, and public schools improve when parents can choose their schools.

Parents and teachers are traditionally thought of as antagonists. And no wonder – under the current system, parents have no effective control over their children’s education other than what they can extract from their teachers by pestering and nagging them. The status quo is designed to force parents and teachers into an antagonistic relationship.

But in the big picture, parents are the best friends teachers have. Ultimately, it’s parents who provide the pressure for better teaching, and – if what we’re seeing in the Schools and Staffing Survey is any indication – that pressure for better teaching provides better working conditions for teachers.

Here’s the executive summary:

Many people claim to speak on behalf of America’s teachers, but we rarely get the opportunity to find out what teachers actually have to say about their work – especially when people are debating government control of schooling.

This study presents data from a major national survey of teachers conducted by the U.S. Department of Education; the Schools & Staffing Survey. We break down these observational data for public and private school teachers, in order to compare what teachers have to say about their work in each of the two school sectors.

These are eye-opening data for the teaching profession. They show that public school teachers are currently working in a school system that doesn’t provide the best environment for teaching. Teachers are victims of the dysfunctional government school system right alongside their students. Much of the reason government schools produce mediocre results for their students is because the teachers in those schools are hindered from doing their jobs as well as they could and as well as they want to. By listening to teachers in public and private schools, we discover numerous ways in which their working conditions differ—differences that certainly help explain the gap in educational outcomes between public and private schools. Exposing schools to competition, as is the case in the private school sector, is good for learning partly because it’s good for teaching.

Key findings include:

• Private school teachers are much more likely to say they will continue teaching as long as they are able (62 percent v. 44 percent), while public school teachers are much more likely to say they’ll leave teaching as soon as they are eligible for retirement (33 percent v. 12 percent) and that they would immediately leave teaching if a higher paying job were available (20 percent v. 12 percent).

• Private school teachers are much more likely to have a great deal of control over selection of textbooks and instructional materials (53 percent v. 32 percent) and content, topics, and skills to be taught (60 percent v. 36 percent).

• Private school teachers are much more likely to have a great deal of influence on performance standards for students (40 percent v. 18 percent), curriculum (47 percent v. 22 percent), and discipline policy (25 percent v. 13 percent).

• Public school teachers are much more likely to report that student misbehavior (37 percent v. 21 percent) or tardiness and class cutting (33 percent v. 17 percent) disrupt their classes, and are four times more likely to say student violence is a problem on at least a monthly basis (48 percent v. 12 percent).

• Private school teachers are much more likely to strongly agree that they have all the textbooks and supplies they need (67 percent v. 41 percent).

• Private school teachers are more likely to agree that they get all the support they need to teach special needs students (72 percent v. 64 percent).

• Seven out of ten private school teachers report that student racial tension never happens at their schools, compared to fewer than half of public school teachers (72 percent v. 43 percent).

• Although salaries are higher in public schools, private school teachers are more likely to be satisfied with their salaries (51 percent v. 46 percent).

• Measurements of teacher workload (class sizes, hours worked, and hours teaching) are similar in public and private schools.

• Private school teachers are more likely to teach in urban environments (39 percent v. 29 percent) while public school teachers are more likely to teach in rural environments (22 percent versus 11 percent).

• Public school teachers are twice as likely as private school teachers to agree that the stress and disappointments they experience at their schools are so great that teaching there isn’t really worth it (13 percent v. 6 percent).

• Public school teachers are almost twice as likely to agree that they sometimes feel it is a waste of time to try to do their best as a teacher (17 percent v. 9 percent).

• Nearly one in five public school teachers has been physically threatened by a student, compared to only one in twenty private school teachers (18 percent v. 5 percent). Nearly one in ten public school teachers has been physically attacked by a student, three times the rate in private schools (9 percent v. 3 percent).

• One in eight public school teachers reports that physical conflicts among students occur everyday; only one in 50 private school teachers says the same (12 percent v. 2 percent).

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13 Responses to Free to Teach: What America’s Teachers Say about Teaching in Public and Private Schools

  1. As a veteran of both teaching in and attending both public and private schools, I think the study has to acknowledge the “property right” issue of education that inhibits public schools from removing, or refusing to accept, students who challenge or disrupt the educational environment. This is especially significant when claiming that lack of parental influence is the problem in public schools – in reality, it is often a preponderance of parental interference in removing disruptive children from the classroom that causes the gridlock and lack of progress in administration of the public school environment. The minute public schools have the ability to refuse service to students the way private schools do, I believe you will see huge numbers of voucher opponents jump on the voucher bandwagon.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Public schools do have the right to refuse service to disruptive students, and they do in fact do so. It’s called expulsion. In addition, some students are transferred to “alternative schools.” If you think the number of students who are expelled or sent to alternative arrangements needs to be significantly increased, the next question you should ask is, “why hasn’t that happened?” The answer isn’t property rights, but politics. The government school system responds to political imperatives, and it always will.

  2. Oh, I completely agree with you, Greg.

    However, if you are involved with public education in any way, you would know of the extensive time and administrative work that is involved in moving for, and achieving, expulsion. The reality you would discover is that it can be as obtrusive as the due process you criticize in removing ineffective teachers. Students, like non-probationary teachers, do, in fact, have a “property right” to “due process” before expulsion.

    The question I might ask – “why hasn’t that happened?” – has been asked by teachers and parents repeatedly throughout the country. The answer is, I’m sure you’d agree, a problem of ineffective administration.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Well, leaving aside what would surely be an unedifying debate over whether due process rights are “property” rights, I think your analysis just invites us to once again ask the same question “why are things this way?” Why does the government accord due process rights to delinquent students? Why does it have “ineffective” administration (understanding “ineffective” not in the sense of “incompetent” but in the sense of “unable to effect meaningful improvements”)?

      The answer is politics. As long as schools are government-owned and government-run, they will be beholden to politics first and foremost, and reform efforts will continue to have at best a very limited impact.

  3. allen says:

    Indeed the answer is politics and you can see how it plays out in the issue of disruptive students.

    A disruptive student is still a source of funds so for the administration, especially the district administration which is isolated from the need to deal with disruptive students, one student is pretty much the same as another; they’re all just walking bags of money.

    Getting rid of a source of income obviously requires a very good reason but the people with the power to execute the expulsion are largely insulated from those reasons. Only when a student becomes sufficiently disruptive to come to the attention of and to inconvenience those with the power to expel them do they run any likelihood of being expelled.

    So the solution is to put the power to expel in the hands of those who have to deal with the disruption.

    Of course those people have to have an offsetting reason to be temperate with the power to expel but that ought to be self-evident.

  4. Allen provides some important insight into the issue – and one that is relevant to the issue of attendance. Years ago districts in Illinois attempted to enforce minimum attendance requirements – ten unexcused absences in a quarter/twenty in a semester and students would receive no credit for the class. These policies were defeated at the court level. Many districts would never push such an issue, as it is free money when kids don’t show up. And it is each citizen’s right to blow off his education.

    The larger issue is the indictment of “government controlled” schools and how you envision the system working. While Greg says, “as long as schools are government owned and government run,” we should note that some, and probably most, will always be government owned/run for the majority of Americans because it works for them and they like it. There is no denying the feelings of voters when 75% of Americans are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their schools. This is most true among populations that vote the most.

    While I’m not opposed to charters, or even vouchers to take money elsewhere, including private schools, the reality is this. I, like most Americans, really like my neighborhood school, and I’m not giving it up. I live near and work for one of the top high schools and school districts in the country. It is the pride of our community and representative of the collective efforts and commitment to excellence of our community. While the state has open enrollment, and students can take their state money wherever they want, our students stay where they are because they want to, and the schools are full, and voters would not be inclined to take on other students who are dissatisfied with their home school – even as we might sympathize with their plight. That is, no doubt, true through two-thirds to three-quarters of the country.

    That said, I lament the state of about 30% of the schools in this country, and society should seek to alleviate the problems for those who seek success. However, this in no means an imperative to move away from “government run schools” as that is not the factor in the success or failure of most. There will always be a government system of public education because it works for most, and most want it that way.

  5. allen says:

    You can have it one way Mike, or you can have it the other but you can’t have it both ways.

    Either it’s a political entity for which education is the ostensible raison d’etre or it’s an education institution.

    It’s not that the two are mutually exclusive so much as it is that as a political entity for which education is the ostensible raison d’etre, politics becomes the forge upon which decision are hammered out. The constituency with the most influence is the constituency that will bend the organization to its ends. Issues which don’t have a politically-potent constituency will get the leavings. They’ll always be an afterthought.

    Unfortunately, education is, in most districts, especially large, urban districts, just such an afterthought.

    The constituency most likely to be urgently concerned with education – parents – are largely rendered irrelevant.

    The single decision with regard to education parents have to make is where to live. Once that decision is made all other decisions are the province of the elected representatives. Since they’re politicians their decisions are, necessarily, politically-driven and the most powerful constituency in most school districts are the professionals. The professionals may be the teachers and their union or it may be the superintendent and the administrative organization the superintendent heads but it isn’t the parents. The interests of the professionals are job security, future advancement and pay which is why educational performance is seen as largely irrelevant but financial considerations are always front and center.

    That’s why the indictment of “government schools” isn’t misplaced so much as it’s poorly focused.

    The dissatisfaction with district schools is what’s driving the on-going interest in vouchers and charters. That interest is strongest where the education system is least worthwhile, those large, urban school districts. While you may like your neighborhood school, Mike, there are plenty of parents who look back on their neighborhood schools as the institutions that deprived them of the sort of life they envy. You won’t find a lot of satisfaction among those parents.

  6. While you may argue for widespread dissatisfaction, Allen, you have offered no specific evidence of it. As I’ve noted, polls – Gallup, Rand, and Pew – show the overwhelming majority of parents are satisfied with their schools – their government run schools. The only place this isn’t generally true is in the large urban districts – which are shrinking – and in which when districts like Denver Public Schools (DPS) attempts to close those schools, they are met with widespread opposition from the community of parents. This is repeated continuously in urban districts across the nation.

    Secondly, you mention “plenty of parents (from what source I don’t know) who look back on their neighborhood schools as the institutions that deprived them of the sort of life they envy. You won’t find a lot of satisfaction among those parents.”

    Yet, the same polls I mention reveal that 85% of Americans are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their own education.

    85%, Allen, proven by polling data in the past two years. Just who are you talking about, and where is your evidence?

  7. allen says:

    I’ve seen some of those polls Mike and while the majority of parents – I don’t recall it being 85% but let that slide – feel the schools to which they send their kids are fine virtually the same percentage aren’t satisfied with the public education system as a whole. That suggests rather strongly that what’s in operation is a determined effort to avoid the obvious and with it the necessity of acting on that obvious.

    I’m referring to a politically dangerous demographic that has a much higher percentage of dissatisfaction with their neighborhood schools – urban black parents – not parents nationwide. That’s a significant part of the political force that’s driving vouchers and charters – evidence the recent failure of voucher opponents to shut down the D.C. voucher program – and the constituency that’s starting to split the Democratic party along the lines of the education debate.

    By the way, one of the objections of voucher opponents is that parents can’t be trusted to judge the educational quality of a school which if true casts some doubt on the value of parental satisfaction with their neighborhood schools as a worthwhile indicator of the quality of the public education system. Once again, you can have it one way – parent’s can’t judge the quality of the school to which a voucher opens the door – or the other – parental satisfaction with their neighborhood schools is a worthwhile indicator of the quality of the public education system – but you can’t have it both ways.

  8. Actually, I wouldn’t see it as an either/or question. My initial statement was that the government system is meeting the needs of its constituents – and that is backed up by data. Thus, I assert that there will always be a government run system because it is preferred by and effective for the whopping majority of Americans.

    Secondly, I refuted your assertion of widespread dissatisfaction, which you acknowledge. Though you see the disconnect – the critics are always referring to “other people’s schools.” They make the same statements about Congress, and when criticizing the education system, they are referencing mainly urban schools. Thus, that’s clearly a conclusion drawn from a perception that is not based in reality.

    People like their schools, but criticize the system based on “what they’ve heard,” often from agenda-driven people like John Stossel – not that he doesn’t have some good points, he does. However, they don’t hear the average kid who achieves his expected objective and lives a quiet of contentment because those stories are familiar and obvious to so many that they don’t make for compelling television.

    I’ve heard the criticism of voucher parents not being trusted – and I’ve also heard you argue against it. And, I completely agree with you on the need to meet the urgent demands for reform at the bottom 30% of our schools. But, as I noted to Greg, it’s not about it being government run, and it will always be so for the three quarters of Americans who want it that way and feel well served by the system

  9. allen says:

    No Mike, you didn’t back it up with data. Here’s what you wrote:

    “There is no denying the feelings of voters when 75% of Americans are “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their schools. This is most true among populations that vote the most.”

    Provide a citation and we’ll take a look at all the data not just this particular factoid. As I wrote, I’ve seen the data as well and it’s inevitably matched with similar levels of disatisfaction with the public education system as a whole. It’s immaterial whether that’s because of “what they’ve heard” since parents have no better criteria on which to judge the schools their own kids attend then they do the system in its entirety. If they’re opinion of their own school is valid then their opinion of the entire institution is valid. Or the reverse.

    And do try to keep your shirt on Mike. You didn’t refute much of anything because what I asserted was that widespread parental dissatisfaction with the schools their own kids are attending is found primarily among urban, particularly lower-income, blacks. Feel free to offer proof to the contrary but charters are found in majority black, urban areas primarily because of widespread dissatisfaction with the education offered by district schools in those areas, to those kids.

    Also, I believe we’re approaching the twilight of the public education system because we’re entering into a time wherein the “good enough” standard that’s inevitable with an organization unresponsive to its clientèle, a hallmark of any monopoly and certainly common to the public education system, just won’t do any more. The ever-rising demands of the job market, driven by the ever-increasing capability of the technology are putting those “good-paying manufacturing jobs” from the halcyon days of American labor’s preeminence in the past and the education system that was good enough for those times is rapidly showing that it can’t change to meet the new requirements. That realization is part of what’s driven forty-four states to adopt charter laws and charters are the first, solid step to the end of the public education system.

  10. Oh, my shirt is on, Allen, and buttoned with a really nice tie.

    Since you’ve seen the data, you can certainly check Pew, Rand, and Gallup. Though you’d ignore what you find as you note, “since parents have no better criteria on which to judge the schools their own kids attend then they do the system in its entirety.” They’re incapable of judging, but you’re omniscient and correct, and you clearly know what works for three quarters of the country? Better than they do? Interesting world in which you live.

    Your claim that If “they’re opinion of their own school is valid then their opinion of the entire institution is valid – Or the reverse” is fundamentally flawed. They could obviously know their own personal experience and judge it well, but be making generalizations based on ignorance of “the system.” It’s most probably that way. Additionally, I have, again and again, agreed with you about urban populations, and the need for assistance, and I support charters and choice.

    In terms of the “twilight of the public education system,” that is the heart of what I initially asked of Greg. Your judgment is such a fantasy – though it’s not surprising considering your standard mantra of a true lassez-faire, libertarian world where the free market operates to create a utopia. It’s simply not going to happen because it shouldn’t and few people would want to live there because the reality would be far from “satisfied” or “very satisfied,” but it’s fascinating that you believe it.

    Keep in mind that charters are pubic education, and three-quarters of the country (and most likely more) will not be seeking vouchers because government education works for them – like it works in every country in the world, for which we regularly lament not being more like them (I do concede the countries like Singapore and Sweden that allow choice of private schools).

    Yet, as I’ve noted extensively in postings, I concede that reform is necessary, and I have no problem with choice of private schools. The public system is somewhat slow to adapt to needs in terms of vocational education, dual credit, high tech high schools, and school to work readiness. But they will adapt as the communities make it happen in their government run schools that they always have and always will overwhelmingly support.

  11. Allen,

    In case your interested in some other stories of parents attitude toward charters and vouchers, you might consider checking out one of my recent posts:

    http://a-teachers-view.blogspot.com/2009/05/to-many-charters-in-north-denver.html

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